Steelers strike massive blow to Blaze's title hopes

SHEFFIELD STEELERS saw off a determined challenge from reigning Elite League champions Coventry Blaze to secure a 6-4 victory at the Motorpoint Arena.

The result moved Ben Simon's team back level on points with second-placed Cardiff Devils – who they share the same owner with – while a shock 3-2 home defeat for leaders Belfast at the hands of bottom club Newcastle Vipers provided an added bonus on Thursday night for the Steelers, leaving them three points behind the Giants with four games in hand.

Joey Talbot followed up his hat-trick in Monday's stunning 5-3 win at Nottingham Panthers with another treble, swiftly cancelling out Russ Cowley's 12th-minute opener for Coventry before adding two more early in the second period to give Steelers a 3-1 lead by the 24th minute.

Two goals from Luke Fulghum drew Coventry level before Jeff Legue's 25th goal of the season at 38.04 saw Steelers edge ahead again.

Ashley Tait made it 5-3 with a shorthanded strike at 52.50, and while Aaron Nell briefly made it a one-goal game again at 58.05, Neil Clark quickly struck at the other end with an empty net goal to ensure both points for the home side.

It marked the 11th league defeat of the season for Paul Thompson's struggling champions, now 13 points behind Sheffield and Cardiff who, based on recent form, must be considered the two teams most likely to battle it out and inherit Coventry's regular season title, particularly given Belfast's recent up and down form.

Coventry must also guard against two teams coming up close behind them in the form of the Braehead Clan and the Hull Stingrays, the team they took over shirtly before the start of the season.

Braehead - following last night's 5-1 win over Edinburgh - are now only three points behind the Blaze, although they have played a game more.

Hull, under the guidance of former Coventry captain Sylvain Cloutier, sit four further points back, with a game in hand.

Cloutier declared himself satisfied after taking five points from a possible six over the festive period.

The point dropped came in the 3-2 overtime defeat at home to Newcastle on Tuesday night, which followed a 7-4 triumph over the same team the night before. Hull then responded to their home ice disappointment with a 6-1 victory in front of their home fans over Dundee Stars on Wednesday.

"We would have liked to have got all six points but I am still happy with five," said Cloutier.